Reading along with Mark Does Stuff, I've just finished rereading what might be my favorite Tamora Pierce book, Bloodhound. Predictably, the stuff I thought was the most awesome was precisely the stuff that bored some other people, and the stuff that irritated other people did not irritate me at all, and the few things that I did dislike basically bugged only me.
Whatever. I still think Bloodhound is fabulous. The main plot is about counterfeiting, which I think is amazing because economics are awesome, and it really fits in well with the “doggy books'” exploration of class, being the only Tortall subseries about people who aren't noble (or live closely with the aristocracy) and who live paycheck to paycheck. I also love the exploration of Port Caynn, because port cities are fun, and having Beka, who is so tied to Corus and whose identity is very much bound up in her home and her neighborhood and her people, have to adjust to working in a whole different environment and try on a whole new identity while she's at it.
Pearl Skinner is also a great villain because, in a refreshing departure from the sympathetic genius villains we see so much of, she is thoroughly unlikeable in every way, and she is stupid. And honestly, don't mean and stupid people often seem to rise to the top in the real world? Charisma certainly helps, and the charismatic villain is someone we should all read lots of stories about and learn to watch out for, but there really are quite a surprising number of people who seem to acquire and keep power through sheer assholitude, despite a total lack of ability to actually manage it or to get anyone to like them. And with those kinds of people, having that power seems to further insulate them from having to ever get a fucking clue, and they just get dumber and meaner until, in the real world, they're writing whiny Wall St. Journal op-eds about how those lazy peasants are so meeean and ungrateful these days, just because we crashed the entire world economy to the ground, like that has anything to do with someone being unemployed or losing their house, where do they get these crazy Communist ideas? ...Ahem. Anyway, in Pearl Skinner's case, she's mean and vicious and stupid and irresponsible, and surprise surprise, she'd rather kill herself then actually face up to the consequences of her actions. Also she abuses her minions and kills off co-conspirators until the remaining ones are chomping at the bit to turn on her the second it looks like they might get away with it, which is one of the elementary Evil Overlord mistakes on that list that was popular around these here Internets a few years ago.
There is, of course, more to this conspiracy than Pearl, because Pearl is too stupid to have come up with it on her own; just stupid enough to go along with it.
The bulk of this books seems to be Beka Learning Things, even though she's not in training anymore like she was in Terrier. She learns how to handle her adorable scent hound, Achoo, and she learns about Port Caynn, obviously. She learns more about detective-ing and continues to conquer her shyness and learn the “soft skills” needed in a people-facing job like Dog work. She also learns How To Flirt, which is a subplot of the book that I have very strong but also somewhat contradictory feelings about.
One the one hand, I do appreciate that How To Flirt is presented as stuff Beka must learn and think about, that it is awkward and uncomfortable when she just applies the usual Stuff Is Happening sorts of mental processing to it, and that she has to decide to deliberately employ certain maneuvers that she has copied from other people. I appreciate this because God damn do I hate it when people act like flirting is just a naturally occurring consequence of being older than 13 and like there is no social learning or construction going on. I mean, it's one of my pet peeves when people act like any kind of knowledge is naturally occurring and does not have to be learned, but stuff involving sex and romance pisses me off the most, most likely because if you actually start paying attention and looking at who thinks what and where are you getting your knowledge or basically apply any form of metacognitive or critical awareness, it becomes screamingly obvious that finding two people who actually have the same ideas about How It Works Obviously is next to impossible. And yet most people seem really certain that there is a universally understood Way It Works and apparently no amount of endless miscommunication will convince them that this is actually a confusing and ambiguous subject, and, for all the lip service given to The Importance of Communicating in Relationships, it's next to impossible to get someone to actually identify their expectations and tell them to you in plain English so that you can compare your ideas about How It Works. So I like that Beka is not automagically on the same page as everyone else just by existing.
On the other hand, the text still sort of presents Beka as the odd one out and all third parties as being fully on the same page about what is in the body of knowledge that Beka has to acquire in order to pursue romantic relationships. This is bollocks. Also, I really hate Dale. I never particularly liked him—I thought he was sort of boring and I used to kind of breeze through his sections without thinking about it very much like I do with most other Obligatory Romantic Subplots in fiction—but reading along with the MR community really made me hate him more. This is because in the MR community there was a lot of discussion about who liked what and what wasn't working for whom etc. etc., and generally the only thing that occurred universally was that everyone in the commentariat is a relatively sensible and aware-of-other-persons-existing sort of person and, as such, we all agreed that people's mileage may vary greatly in what they do and do not find sexy or annoying. This, for me, threw into sharp relief how much not a single person in the cast of Bloodhound thinks that anybody's mileage may vary, and Dale is the worst of the lot. It's not that Dale is a bad person. It's just that Dale is a rake, and so I hate him for the same reason I hate most rakes, which is that they get into a particular groove of this is their rakey way of doing things, and they forget that their personal groove is not an immutable law of the universe and human nature. And I realize that having the whole conversation about what individual people do and do not like and what each person's expectations are and etc etc etc all that stuff that most dudes won't even arse themselves to talk about with supposedly serious partners (I say “supposedly” because of the number of times I've seen—and, once, been subjected to—“serious” being assumed out of a certain length of time without any discussion of what it means or whether the other party wishes to take the relationship to some sort of “next level”) isn't fun, and the whole point of being a rake is to just have fun without the serious bits, but the result tends to be self-absorbed, oblivious people who expect pretty members of their preferred gender to just automatically and seamlessly slot themselves into the rake's preferred modus operandi, and apparently they somehow manage to shield themselves from ever even learning that not everyone is guaranteed to be playing their game the way they're playing it, and they act all shocked and confused and surprised like they've never heard of such a thing when one of their marks has some sort of personal like or dislike or quirk or history or, you know, anything. I think they might block it out on purpose because it would require effort to remember. Dale is not only not an exception to this, he's pretty much the quintessential embodiment of oblivious lazy rakish assumption-making. I mean, if a dude in his twenties who's supposedly met oh so very very many ladies in his day tells you he's never met a woman who doesn't like being snuck up on and grabbed from behind in the street at night, that dude is either deeply, deeply stupid, or he's lying and he thinks you're deeply, deeply stupid, because it is wildly statistically unlikely that that is actually the case.
Dale also makes Beka sit around and watch while he plays games. This is a practice that needs to die in a fire.
Unfortunately, the book rather comes down on the side of Here Is What Flirting Is, Everyone Agrees On It, You Will Like It Once You Learn Because It Is Fun, Period. Which, sorry, Tamora Pierce, 99% of what you write is pure genius, but that's the most stupid lie about human sexuality I've heard since Cassandra Clare had someone dead seriously describe Jace Wayland as “everyone's type” and had another character use him as a test for whether or not she was a lesbian. I understand it's important to have books for teens that don't shame female characters for being sexual but everyone needs to stop portraying shit as universal when it isn't universal. (This goes double for whoever wrote Blood and Chocolate; I still have a headache from trying to follow the characters' thought processes in that book.)
Luckily, Beka's being unthinkingly groped by Dale is only part of what she spends her time in Port Caynn doing. She meets a lot of characters who are actually intelligent and interesting, from Master Finer, the cranky genius silversmith, to Amber Orchid, a nightclub performer and a transwoman who lives by day as a dude named Okha in a relationship with a gay man (apparently Port Caynn's queer scene doesn't have their terminology sorted out nearly as neatly as the modern world does) and who also gathers information on Pearl Skinner and her court but simultaneously refuses to act as a birdie to her boyfriend, who is a Dog. Amber is a very smart lady and I would read an entire book just about her. Beka also learns a lot about what a really corrupt police force looks like, which I really appreciate—a lot of cop stories show the cops as being pretty unequivocally the good guys, but I feel like the Beka Cooper books do a much better job of simultaneously illustrating how cops can be the good guys and why it is that societies need well-functioning police forces, but also not shying away from the fact that well-functioning police forces are actually pretty rare and difficult to achieve, and at least as often what you get is a bunch of venal bullies with power issues demanding respect without doing much to earn it. (Although even in Port Caynn it looks like none of the corrupt Dogs have been casually choking random civilians to death. Also, can the news go away this week?) And there's a rather heartbreaking bit about one of the Cage dogs in particular, how she left the street beat and became a Cage dog (that's the professional torturers, basically) for the sake of her kids, in order to stay safe so she could raise them without worrying that she was going to die, but the job has inured her to enacting violence upon the helpless so much that she's started hitting her kids.
Also, the action scenes are great. Tamora Pierce has always been fabulous about writing action scenes, but these are extra-great, because they are so visceral and gross and I really get the feeling that with Beka's books she's leaving the “YA” idea behind as anything other than a marketing designation—Beka is an adult and these are adult action scenes. Also, I think it's very important to have violent visceral action scenes in a book that's mostly about money, in order to ground it. So we get the bread riot, a solid punch in the gut to bring home what's really so bad about crop loss and rising food costs, and this is effectively placed at the beginning of the book in and among a lot of conversations about the chaos that could occur from runaway inflation, which is a thing that is basically also all the prices rising, just with different money theory stuff behind it. Also, the climax isn't just, like, smashing up all the counterfeit monies; it involves literal swimming in shit, which I think serves as a nice metaphor for a country being awash in money that isn't even worth shit.
In short, COUNTERFEITING YAY.